Why you should consider blogging

Blogger at window

On Tuesday night, I was honoured to be the guest speaker at the monthly dinner meeting of the Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders (OVAR). I’ve written about that in a previous post on this blog – and you can click on the OVAR logo to read that post:


While talking with friends and OVAR members before during the pre-dinner social hour, I had a few people ask me about tips for blogging. I shared some tips – and I’ve written about this before on this blog. But I promised those with whom I spoke that I would summarize my thoughts about blogging. So here they are…

I consider this blog to be as important to my Port Rowan layout as the ties and rail and I will never start another layout without also starting a blog about it.

I started my blog in August, 2011. I had never before blogged and I had no idea what to expect. As of right now…

– I have made 1,296 posts (including this one).

– The blog has generated 7,145 comments. Of those, 2,333 are mine as I respond to the 4,812 comments from my readers (and thanks for those!)

Blog - Comments

– The blog has generated more than 715,000 page views. (It’s actually a bit more than that, because I did not track stats for the first year of blogging. I simply didn’t know I could.)

In addition to making new friends online, the value of this blog has been in its ability to generate information that helps me become a better railway modeller. For example:

– Readers have offered information about the prototype (CNR Simcoe Sub) and the area (St. Williams and Port Rowan) that I model.

– Readers have shared information about traffic sources and commodities to enhance the freight, LCL and express operations on my layout.

– Those readers who are also professional railroaders have shared information about prototype practices that have improved my operating sessions.

– Readers who know more about S scale (because I’m still relatively new to working in 1:64) have given me leads everything from small detail parts to locomotives, and from manufacturers to suppliers (whether they are distributors, retailers or individuals).

Interestingly, in a number of cases, information came my way that I did not even know I “needed”. For example, I’ve had many people become readers who are not railway modellers: They’re historians, or residents of one of the communities I model, or have another interest that overlaps something I’m doing on the layout, such as installing the working telegraphy system.

In the past, I might have had to do extensive research, including trips to archives, to find much of this information. Today, thanks to this blog, much of it has come my way – simply because I shared.

Finally, another important role for this blog is to remind me how I did something. For example, I often return to the blog to look up detail parts I used on a specific type of freight car so I can order more for another model.

I’m sometimes asked if blogging takes time away from my modelling bench. For me, I find it actually encourages me to work on projects. Having gotten into the habit of blogging, I start to miss it if I don’t – and I will pick up a project and work on it just to have something to blog about. The regular need to photograph my progress for the blog also means I’m a better modeller, because today’s digital cameras (even camera phones) show up all of the mistakes and sloppy shortcuts. When I see those in a picture, I know I have to go back and re-work what I’ve built to make it right.

If you have never written a blog, it can seem like a daunting project. It’s not. Here are some ideas – based on my own experience – to get you started.

– Make regular postings: I suggest one per week on average (and I know that I’ve been remiss at that). They don’t have to be “War and Peace” – they can be as brief as a photo and a caption. But to generate the traffic that will start paying off in terms of information gathering, regular postings are a must.

– Write about what you’ve done – not what about your thinking of doing. Unless, of course, you want every expert on the Internet to tell you what to do.

– Give newcomers a place to find their feet. Remember that readers may land on your blog at any post – rarely the first one. On this blog, I’ve included a “First Time Here?” page, into which I’ve gathered some basic information and links to key posts that describe what I’m doing in more detail. I’ve also included lots of photos of the layout on this page, so that people can see what I’m doing and assess whether they want to read more. (Not everybody will, and that’s cool!)

– I’ve also included an “About the Author” page, so people can find out who I am. It’s always more comfortable to have a conversation with somebody if you know who they are, I find. I’ve also included information about how to contact me on that page.

– Make it easy for interested readers to follow you. This blog includes a “Follow this Blog” page to describe the options. And I post the occasional reminder to my blog that new readers should check it out. (This post counts, so if you’re new to my blog – Welcome! Please have a look at how you can follow along.)

– Back up your blog. I didn’t, at first – I didn’t know I could. And then I lost the entire thing. Fortunately, a reader was able to access the XML file (the programming language that creates the blog) for my posts on his own computer and share it with me, so I was able to re-post all of the posts. But I lost many of the early comments. Blogs reside online, and the engine that drive them – such as WordPress – have an export tool that allows you save your blog to your local computer drive. Use it.

– A promising blog that hasn’t been updated in months is a sad thing to find on the Internet. I sometimes wonder if the blogger has unexpectedly passed away. So if you started a blog that you don’t intend to maintain and you read this, do your readers a favour and write a final post saying that you’ve decided to no longer maintain the blog because you’re doing other things. (The reasons are none of our businesses, but we like to know that you’re still alive.)

If you have not yet started a blog, I hope that this post will encourage you to consider doing so. I use WordPress and recommend it – I like the user interface and I think the resulting blogs look elegant. But there are other engines – such as Blogger – that may suit you better. I encourage you to look at each and then if you’re interested, register a name (it’s free to do so) and start sharing!

Bloggers without borders

Yes, more tech problems

Hi everyone:

Yes, there’s a bunch of stupid code showing up at the top of my blog. No, I don’t know why.

My blog is created using the WordPress engine, but hosted on my own ISP’s servers (not the WordPress servers). Last night, WordPress automatically updated its software and while my other two blogs are fine, this one is having problems. Perhaps it’s something to do with the size of the blog… there’s a whole lot of data here.

I have an email into my ISP’s tech support group. Meantime, I’m thinking of just getting rid of the blogs – they’ve been nothing but extra work this past year, due to technical issue after technical issue. And frankly, there are more useful and lucrative ways to spend my time…


UPDATE: Thanks to Jarrod Daley, who suggested I turn off the “web stats” plugin. I don’t even remember turning that on – but it’s not needed anyway since I get stats through the WordPress “Jetpack” suite. So, it’s off – and it worked! Onto the next techsplosion…

Reviewing Portraits

I was in the mood to mess with this blog today, so I’ve managed to transfer all photographs for posts from today back to the beginning of November of last year into my own servers. It’s been fun to review the posts over the last 12 months – and satisfying to make progress on this unwelcome, but necessary, task.

While I was at it, I also transferred all the photos in the series of “Equipment Portraits” postings I’ve made – in which I share photos and information about the locomotives and rolling stock that run on my layout and/or on the exhibition layout built by my friends in the S Scale Workshop. If you’re new to the blog and you’re not familiar with those – or if you just want to revisit them – click on CNR 79431, below…

CNR 79431 - Portrait

30 days to broken links

Photobucket just sent me the following message:

This message is to inform you that we discontinued the Plus 20 plan in June of this year. We have grandfathered your expired plan for several months as a convenience.

In order to keep your account current and all of your content available, we are asking that you migrate over to one of our current Plus plan offerings.

Failure to do so within 30 days will result in your billing to be suspended, and your account will be reverted to a free account.

If you have any questions about your account or which of our current offerings is right for you, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

This basically means that in 30 days, all of my photo links will be broken. I will NOT have the site migrated over in the next 30 days: sorry about that. And I’m not paying US$400 per yer to maintain the links.

(Thanks to the many people who have offered suggestions in the past about how to deal with this problem. I think we’ve covered the waterfront on the issue, so I’ve turned off the “comments” feature on this post. Let’s move on…)

When Photobucket announced its decision to axe 3rd party hosting, those with free accounts were immediately cut off. Since I had a paying plan, I’ve been given a grace period. At the time, it sounded like I would have until the end of next year to complete my migration, but apparently that’s not that case.

I understand Photobucket’s decision – they are losing money and needed to change to become sustainable. I don’t agree that they’ve made the right call – US$400 is just too steep for most. But frankly, if everybody who used it for free had purchased a modest annual plan from the start (as I did), the company might not have had to take the actions that it did.

While I sympathize with their plight, it doesn’t change the fact that in a month, most of my photo links will be broken. I will not lose the photos themselves – I’ll be able to view them on the Photobucket site, and I have copies of all of the images on my own hard drive. But it’s going to take time to transfer them to the same server that hosts this blog.

Sorry – that’s life online for you!

Battling the OGRE

The Ogre, in this case, is Photobucket… and the battle has turned into a slog.

There are many things I would rather do* than rebuild this blog by transferring my photos off Photobucket and into WordPress. But it has to be done. I reported in mid-August that I’d moved three months worth of photos in three weeks. Now, at the beginning of October, it’s been six weeks and I’ve only done about a month’s worth.

It’ll be amazing if I get it all done within the allotted time, before Photobucket no longer supports third-party hosting for my blog.

*Like paint miniatures for OGRE/GEV, from Steve Jackson Games. These have languished in their boxes, unpainted, for some 25 years now. So compared to them, I’m blazing a trail through my blog…

The Command Post was well guarded. But it wasn't enough.

The Ontario Manifest is this weekend

I’m headed off later this week to attend Ontario Manifest – the 2017 annual convention for the Pacific Southwest Region of the NMRA. I’ve been invited to deliver the after-dinner speech at the banquet on Saturday night. I’m ready to go and looking forward to it!

I like California – a lot. I’ve been a couple of times, including for hobby-related events – and there’s a lot of spectacular railway modelling taking place in the state. The people are a ton of fun, too. I’m looking forward to spending a couple of days with them.

PSR-NMRA Banquet Speech

For the banquet, I’ll be offering up some thoughts about where the hobby is going, where we’ll find the next generation of serious hobbyists, and what we can do to foster them. I spoke on this topic at the Niagara Frontier Region NMRA convention in Ottawa, Canada just over a year ago, and had a lot of interesting feedback from those who attended. I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts in California.

I’m also looking forward to my first visit to the Orange Empire Railway Museum.

And yes, I’ll post all about the trip when I return…

Please Stand By

As a consequence of being out of the country for a week, I’ll be tardy about responding to comments on my blogs until late next week – and if you’re a first-time commenter, your post may get held in the moderator’s cue until then. Apologies in advance – that’s just the reality of the Internet these days: everybody gets moderated the first time.

Six years of blogging

On this day in 2011, I started writing about Port Rowan in 1:64, with a post called “Breaking Marley’s Chains”. You can find that post – and other early ones that outline the thinking that evolved into this layout – on the “First Time Here?” page.

I’m pleasantly surprised at how the layout has taken shape while remaining true to the ideas I set out in those early posts.

Coincidentally, I spoke last night at a local social club for railway modelling enthusiasts and railfans, and one of the subjects I touched upon was the power of coupling a blog to a layout project. I think this blog remains my most important tool for modelling Port Rowan in S scale.

That’s due, by the way, to all of you who read and comment on my posts – offering insight and information. Thanks for that. This blog has generated more than 670,000 page views and 6,700 comments – and my knowledge of Port Rowan, S scale, and modelling has benefitted tremendously from this exchange of ideas.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post about the power of blogs as a modelling tool, called “Tips for blogging about our hobby”. If you missed it, click on the dogs, below…


Three months in three weeks

I’ve now moved three more months’ worth of photos off Photobucket and onto my own servers, so I’m almost to the end of March, 2012. It has taken three weeks of spare time – between other activities – to re-code about three months worth of posts.

Slowly, but surely. It is taking time away from modelling, however. I’m making very slow progress on the Leedham Feed Mill – not enough to warrant another post at this time.

2011 is transferred

Two weeks ago today, I posted about the changes at Photobucket and how they could affect my blogs (including this one).

This morning, I finished transferring all images for posts made in 2011 to my own server. Given that I started the blog on August 29, 2011, that represents less than a half-year of blogging – and just 104 posts out of more than 1,200. So there’s still more to do – a lot more.

But it’s a start, and I now have a procedure that’s working for me.

Just thought everyone would like to know that at this rate, there should be no service interruption at Port Rowan in 1:64.

Shooting a cover

The editor of a hobby magazine emailed yesterday to ask for a vertical-format photo to use as a potential cover for a feature I wrote. I spent the next several hours composing and shooting 13 potential covers.

Shooting a cover.
(Lights, camera, cover? We’ll see if this composition makes the cut…)

I’m pretty excited: If my photo is used, it’ll be the first cover story related to my current layout in a mainstream monthly print publication. (My previous, Maine On2 layout made the cover of RMC several times.)

Cover shots are tricky. First, the vertical format is really challenging for almost all layout photography. We normally view our models (and our layouts) from the side. But the vertical format for a cover means it makes more sense to shoot along the layout instead of across it.

As anyone who has done layout tour photography will know, that creates all sorts of challenges. For example, Even if you’re just focussing on a couple of models in the foreground – just a few feet in front of the camera – you may have an expanse of sky that’s going to need lighting. In the case of the above photo, I had to light up about 15 feet of backdrop in Port Rowan, plus the background at the west end of St. Williams – about 25 feet away from the lens.

Another issue is the nature of trains themselves. Our model trains are low (extending just a few inches above the rails) but long (running for several feet). So shooting a train side-on is impossible when taking a vertical format photograph. Even shooting even a single piece of equipment side-on is tricky. For a vertical photo, even if the model fills the frame side-to-side, there’s going to be a ton of boring sky above it.

This is another reason to build realistically tall trees. They help add interest to the photo. It helps, too, that on a cover, much of the top of any photo will be covered by the magazine’s name/logo. There will also be several call-outs on the cover – “Gluing things to other things: Page 48” and so on – that help hide less desirable elements in the background of a photo. In my case, I have a sharp vertical line where the backdrop curves away from Port Rowan to enter the Lynn Valley, but cloning some trees in PhotoShop, combined with the logo and call-outs, will make that disappear from the viewer’s perception.

The logo, the call-outs, and other items like the location of mailing labels and UPC codes are all things one needs to think about while composing a cover. And that’s before any considerations about scene composition and engagement with the casual viewer. A cover needs to grab attention on the rack – whether it’s in a hobby-friendly location like the local model train emporium, or in an agnostic location like a book shop or grocery store, where it’s competing not only with other model railroading publications, but also all those other magazines vying for our money.

I know my layout photographs well, because I’ve found many interesting places to shoot images on it (which I’ve shared on this blog). But I’ve rarely done vertical format photos and I was surprised at how difficult it was to find an interesting location to shoot when the camera was rotated 90 degrees.

We’ll see how well I did if/when my shot is used on the cover.

Beyond that, I will wait until the article comes out before I reveal what it’s about and what magazine it’s in. At that time, I’ll also share some of the rejected cover shots.

Stay tuned…